The Promise in Portland

“For me, Portland is home,” she says. “It’s a place where I feel completely safe walking down the street because I will pass at least four or five different people I know, and it will take at least 30 extra minutes to walk home. We are a tight-knit community. We are a strong community.”

Ernest Hemingway once said, “It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them.” But I’d also say biking is one of the best ways to get a sense of a neighborhood and the people who live there. On a bike, you come to appreciate the streets where cars always give you extra clearance when passing, people on the sidewalk smile and nod their hellos, and porch-sitters wave good morning. In Louisville, I notice it first in Portland, despite riding along streets with varying numbers of foreclosed homes and neglected lawns.

It would seem a completely different neighborhood than the one portrayed in recent local news coverage. Earlier this summer, WLKY highlighted the 40203 zip code as the 13th poorest in the nation, with stark, black and white images of the neighborhood accompanied by ominous-sounding tones. A voiceover grimly warned that “in such dire economic conditions, the streets here can – and do – turn mean.”

Angel Gustavison sighs when the subject of the news feature comes up in a phone interview. She’s the youth development director at the Portland Promise Center and, like every other staff member, she lives in the neighborhood.

“For me, Portland is home,” she says. “It’s a place where I feel completely safe walking down the street because I will pass at least four or five different people I know, and it will take at least 30 extra minutes to walk home. We are a tight-knit community. We are a strong community.”

Despite having lived in Portland most of her life, it wasn’t until she was in college that Angel became aware of the Promise Center and its work. Community service is a prerequisite for the mission trip she was joining, and when a mentor suggested she fulfill the requirement at the Promise Center, Angel says she immediately fell in love with the place and the kids.

Kids are a huge part of the mission of the Promise Center. Its on-site Learning Center serves nearly 100 school children, from kindergarten through high school, each day with a variety of tutoring, teaching and play activities. Two teachers on staff work with the elementary-age students, while volunteers in the College Connection program work with older students to guide them through standardized tests, college admissions and scholarship applications. The Center has a small endowment fund that can fund scholarships of one or two thousand dollars for each year a student attends college.

It is something of a cruel irony that despite the renewed neighborhood investment and interest in the neighborhood’s schools and education, many Portland students are assigned and bussed to schools in distant neighborhoods, schools that themselves are often failing. It’s hard for parents to exercise much influence from that remove, but the Learning Center now has access to the JCPS curriculum, making it easier for volunteers and teachers to help students, knowing exactly what they’re studying, no matter where they are in the school district. The Center has also partnered with the Department of Education at the University of Louisville, in a program where masters students volunteer each week working with the younger students after school. The Center also introduces different themes and vocations throughout the year that all ages will learn about – talking about filmmaking, for instance, and bringing in local professionals from the industry to talk about their career and field questions.

Throughout all of it, the focus is always on college. “We are creating a college-going culture,” Angel emphasizes. The 28-year-old, who moved to Portland when she was seven explains that “even when I was growing up, it was expected that you would get a boyfriend in high school, get pregnant and drop out. It was odd if you had a family member thinking of college. Now the language in the neighborhood has changed. College is normal, and the expectation is that if you’re not thinking about college, you need to be thinking about a vocation.”

The goal is for the children who come through the Learning Center to go off to college and then return to the neighborhood to share their knowledge, resources, and skills. “We’re not a typical group that comes in and does what they think the neighborhood needs. We are raising up indigenous leaders.” It’s a slow process and long commitment, but the Center can now celebrate several college graduates, students who began coming to their after school program when they were 11 and 12 years old.

Not Yo Mama’s Church

While it had its genesis in 1956 as the Sunshine Club, a self-described “Sidewalk Sunday School,” the center as it now operates really began to take shape in the 1990s, when the mission became affiliated with the Methodist Church. From there it grew and expanded until in 1997 it moved into the building it now occupies, a 9,000-sq-ft facility in the heart of Portland, and renamed itself the Portland Promise Center.

The religious message features strongly in conversations with everyone I talk to about the Promise Center. Along with after-school programs for youth, the Center hosts a Sunday worship service, an adult Bible study and an addiction-recovery group that meets weekly.

Curious, one recent Sunday I arrive at the Center in time for the worship celebration. People are milling about outside in the late summer sunshine; two men in jeans and t-shirts greet me as I walked up, ask me my name, welcome me and direct me inside. “This ain’t yo mama’s church!” one called after me as I open the front door.

Inside, another woman greets me. She’s average height, tan, with white hair in a neat bob and a bright green and aqua top. She’s the kind of woman who instantly makes you feel welcome, and comfortable, who inspires small confessions and honesty and doles out kindness and reassurance in return. Her name is Kathie and her husband is Larry Stoess, the executive director of the Center and the minister as well. We lean against the wall by the kitchen and talk.

She’s eager to tell me about the warehouse on Portland Avenue that the Center bought and how they slowly work on it as money allows them to. The intent is for it to be a small-business incubator, providing residents with jobs and the neighborhood with the services it needs – basic things like a laundromat and a coffee shop. The mention of a coffee shop reminds me of something Angel said earlier in the week, that a big fear of Portland residents is gentrification – or not so much gentrification, but the displacement of long-term residents that so often follows. I ask Kathie if she feels the same way and she nods seriously. “It’s coming. It’s definitely coming. There are artists moving in already.”

She talks about an older couple that has lived in Portland their whole lives and recently nearly lost their house to foreclosure. The Center helped them out and bought the house, but that’s not what they want their role to be. “It’s our hope that they’ll buy it back from us eventually,” Kathie says. They work closely with Habitat for Humanity, who is opening a new headquarters in the neighborhood this month. The goal is home ownership, Kathie tells me, though that’s not always possible.

We enter the gymnasium, where two rows of folding chairs are arranged in a half circle for the service. Larry reads a psalm to the congregation of about 25 and after a few more stragglers enter, he makes a few announcements. Then a woman in the audience adds that she and five others from the Center, along with a few people from Buechel, will be taking a mission trip to Eastern Kentucky, where they’ll work with a small neighborhood church and an organization similar to their own.

Larry gets up and says he wants to add something. “This is a big deal,” he says, “and I don’t want it to just go unnoticed. For so many years, we’ve had people come to our neighborhood and love on us, help us out. And now we’re sending people out to do good in other communities. And I really think that says something about how we’re growing, about what we have to give.”

Certainly not what you’d expect from one of the poorest ZIP codes in the nation.


–Natalie Weis

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